Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus equinus) are classified by the IUCN as a species of ”Least Concern” (IUCN, 2017). However they were regionally threatened in Southern Africa’s game parks with only two indigenous populations in Southern Africa, that being the Kruger National Park and the Percy Fyfe reserve in the Limpopo province of South Africa .The status of these populations is precarious with only about 70 animals surviving in the Kruger National Park.
However, they are ranched extensively in South Africa as part of the hunting and ecotourism industry. Most of these animals were imported from other African countries by game traders where they became part of the captive population on breeding and hunting farms. Healthy numbers now exist under various managed conditions.
Back to Africa, in conjunction with Dr John Knowles of Marwell Zoological Park, Winchester, United Kingdom, introduced Roan Antelope into the Mlilwane Game Reserve in the Kingdom of Swaziland.This occurred on the 23rd of December 2003. Another five arrived in November 2004 and another three from Zoo Dvur Kralove, Czech Republic, in 2008.
Previous attempts to introduce Roan into Mkhaya using Namibian Roan was unsuccessful due to a then unknown protozool disease (commonly referred to as East Coast Fever) that has subsequently been identified as Theileria hippottragi. Working in conjunction with the University of Pretoria a vaccine was produced to deal with this fatal disease. The red legged tick Rhipicephalus evertsi that is the vector for Theileriosis was not present in the area in Namibia and these Roan were susceptible and immunologically naïve.
The issue of Roan genetics has been a topic of discussion for years by conservation authorities in Southern Africa and conclusion has been reached as a result of recent expert opinion of Alpers et al (2004) that suggests the west African roan (Hippotragus equinus koba) should be regarded as an evolutionary significant unit and that the rest (H.e.equinus) could be lumped together making animals of east African origin appropriate for translocation to southern Africa.
All imported animals were tested at the University of Stellenbosch which confirmed the origin being East Africa. This is also consistent with studbook records.
Roan Antelope formerly occurred in family groups over a wide part of Eswatini (previously called Swaziland), which included the Lubombo Mountains, the Malindza and Dumezulu Hills and the western highlands, all of which vary between elevations of 1000' and 5000' above sea level. Roan Antelope favoured habitats of open grassland embraced by wooded fringes and broadleaved savannah with the dominant grasses being varied Hyparrhenia species and Themeda triandra which are locally termed semi-sour to mixed veld, and are prolific on Mlilwane – particularly in the north of the park.
Ted Reilly the director of Big Game Parks actually recovered what is thought to be the remains of the last Roan Antelope in a snare at Maphiveni in 1961. He also saw small herds of them at Maphiveni and at Sikhupe in the Malindza Hills in the 1950’s. They had vanished from the western highlands much earlier.
The objective of the project was to re-establish free-ranging, unmanaged populations of roan in Eswatini’s reserves. The re-introduction will assist in restoring natural biodiversity, which in turn will provide long-term economic benefits to the local and national economy and promote conservation awareness.
OPERATION ROAN ANTELOPE IS TAKING PLACE
IN TWO STAGES:
Stage 1 was the reintroduction of zoo-born Roan into a controlled environment at Mlilwane Game Reserve in the Swaziland middleveld to create a seedbed breeding project.
Stage 2 is the reintroduction of progeny in situ into Eswatini’s game parks and this is presently taking place in the Red Tiger section of the Mkhaya Reserve in the Eswatini lowveld
Initially the animals were managed intensively in a boma and intensive tick control was exercised. New born calves were treated with fipronil to control ticks.
Very high calf mortalities prevailed. This was assumed to be a result of Theileriosis, but with a lack of veterinary care in Eswatini complete post mortems were not always possible.
Local bulls were sourced from an indigenous population in South Africa from the Percy Fyfe Reserve in Limpopo province. This seemed to improve calf survival. Record-keeping has been a problem but otherwise there was good commitment from the managers.
As it stands in 2019 there are 48 animals in the project with animals being moved from the breeding station in Mlilwane to Red Tiger Ranch